Monday, April 5, 2010

Spinmachine Backfires on HSR leaders

Here is another of my long rambling diatribes, but I missed much over the last few days, and we need to catch up, so bear with me. I promised myself I would not blog over the holiday weekend, but boy did my email inbox fill with links from others who wanted to be sure I was in the loop on the latest High Speed Rail fracas. Oddly enough the firestorm appears to have been set off by those who are in charge of the operation!

First we had a letter written last week from OCTA and MTA to the CHSRA Board, telling them in the nicest way possible to go pound sand. The local transportation community is taking a stand against an arrogant organization, who has literally been designing the system without agreements from those transportation organizations that control the right of way. This is why the “public outreach” meetings lack real information regarding how much property needs to be taken, leaving the public twisting in the wind over whether they will have a home or a business in a year or two! After seeing CHSRA ride roughshod over local citizens, local governments, and in some cases the projects of OCTA and MTA themselves, the two groups got together and sent off a letter telling CHSRA that they need to look at shared track options again, in an effort to get them to stop designing an invasive system that destroys neighborhoods. Or, as my neighbor Kevin so eloquently put it, “we're going to design this as if we were building it in a context-free bubble on the moon.”

The irony of this is not lost on us, as Curt Pringle has a seat at the table at the OCTA Board, and he has publicly supported OCTA’s Kris Murray for Anaheim City Council. That request from OCTA-MTA will be considered by the CHSRA Board on Wednesday in San Jose, and I am flying up to watch that bundle of bottle rockets go off, and will report in from a peninsula Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Curt Pringle launched his own press opportunity, working hard to sell the project.

His spin was picked up, and disputed, by online press throughout California. Both the new media outlet Voice of OC and Sign on San Diego grabbed it and ran as well as the local blogs in Fullerton and even the Orange Juice people, who received some scathing comments about Curt’s involvement. Ironically, the OC Register continues to ignore the issue.

But the 800 pound gorilla was the LA Times piece that ran yesterday, which included quotes from the transportation leaders who are pushing back on high speed rail.,0,226389.story

The MTA and OCTA have become very vocal about their position on this project, with the Times reporting, "We are big-time unhappy with the conduct of the high-speed authority," Leahy told the officials who oversee the Los Angeles-to-San Diego train corridor.

"I really can't understand their approach," he said. "In many cases they've ridden roughshod over the host of cities in Orange County and in Los Angeles. They have ignored input and there are assumptions that are just astonishing."

Among other things, Leahy questioned designing the system to run trains every five minutes. "That's extraordinary," he said. And widening the corridor to add dedicated bullet train tracks could require taking out hundreds of homes in Anaheim alone, he noted. "I mean, just crazy stuff," he said, according to a recording of the session obtained by The Times.

If the planning process does not become more rational, Leahy warned, "I don't think there is going to be a project."

I feel for Curt, he has committed a lot of years to this beast, introducing the idea the first time back when he was Speaker, so to watch the thing come unraveling before his eyes has to be frustrating. Many are convinced that his passion for this project has destroyed his objectivity, because nobody with a sense of fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers of California could possibly believe what the spinmeisters are telling us about this project. The LAO has vilified the HSRA’s Business Plan after the HSRA turned it in over a month later than required by law, and incomplete. Among the charges by LAO:

The report lacked specifics required by law under AB3034, and fails to include details required by law, including inadequate and incomplete discussion of risk. The report includes an uninformative timeline, lacking definitive and measurable milestones against which progress can be determined. That is handy for the contractors, but not very constructive for those of us who expect some level of accountability for how our money is being spent. The LAO says the report lacks risk management strategy, and includes projections for ridership, costs, etc, based upon unknown factors. (Are they guessing at how many people will ride it and how much it will cost? Magic 8 Ball?) The report bounces all over the place on scheduling, with an inconsistent timeline that claims procurement of equipment prior to regulatory approval.

But the really big argument against this project comes through review of the financial claims. While Prop 1A explicitly forbids operating subsidies, the CHSRA seems to want to skirt that issue by calling it a “ridership guarantee”. AB3034 promoted this as a profitable project that would fill the coffers of the State saying, “those revenues shall be deposited in the General Fund.” AB3034 also assumed that the taxpayers would never bear the full burden of the construction, claiming, “revenues generated by operations above and beyond operation and maintenance costs shall be used to complete construction of the high speed train system.” So we were sold the pig in a poke of high speed rail never being subsidized, paying for its own costs, and generating revenue, only to find that we will pay the full weight of construction, either through “local contributions” or Federal Stimulus dollars (picking our pockets one way or another) and we will subsidize the cost of running this boondoggle with “ridership guarantees” to the private parties who will run it. Private parties from out of the country by the way, those jobs generated will not be our home town heroes.

And the California State Senate Republican Caucus lit into the program, calling it the “Big Dig West” which seems appropriate since the largest contractor so far is Parsons Brinkerhoff, the same folks who are over-budget and answering some nasty charges for the Boston Big Dig.

And yet, when “we the people” question the value of our money spinning into the porcelain vortex, we are labeled NIMBYs and lives and livelihoods are threatened.

When asked to comment on Diane Harkey’s AB2121, which would cut off finding for this boondoggle, Rod Diridon Jr. said, "It's interesting that one person has tried to put herself above the people of the state of California."

Actually, Mr. Diridon, I think YOU and your HSRA Board have put yourselves above the people of California by continuing to promote, and publicly misrepresent, a project that no longer complies with the Prop 1A that the people of California voted for.

Diane Harkey’s AB2121 will be heard by the Transportation Committee on April 19th, and I have heard a tremendous outpouring of support for the bill, from unexpected sources! Clearly there must be enough support for the bill to make the HSR people nervous or they would never have gone to the trouble of defending their project in the press. While AB2121 may have initially looked like jousting with windmills, it appears to have at least a fair chance of making it to the next level. For those who understand that the emperor is naked and we are overpaying the tailor, Harkey’s office would love to hear from you. Contact Sharon Gonsalves (916) 319-2073sharon.gonsalves for more information on the bill and how you can support it.

In the meantime, the spin of Pringle and Diridon and Barker is failing and failing big. And I have the full inbox to show for it.

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